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Direct From Chekhov to Wasserstein

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Director Jeff Cohen insists there are resonating—indeed, Chekhovian—levels in Wendy Wasserstein's early work, "Isn't It Romantic?" (1983), that have not yet been fully appreciated.

"We all knew that the play was a topical, fun evening in the theatre that established Wendy [Wasserstein] as the voice of her generation, but I don't recall ever hearing that it was a great play," Cohen insists. "When I read it, I was astonished how much it had in common with Chekhov. I've wanted to direct it for 10 years!"

And now he has done just that. On Feb. 14 (just in time for Valentine's Day), Cohen's revival of the play bowed Off-Broadway at the Worth Street Theatre Company, where Cohen serves as artistic director.

"Isn't It Romantic?"—a title that is at once dead-on-serious and ironic—tells the story of two young women, armed with graduate degrees and big ambitions, who come to New York in the early '80s to forge their identities, professional and personal.

The two wannabes are the self-assured, attractive WASP, Harriet, and her less than beautiful Jewish pal, the insecure but funny Janie. The latter (a stand-in for Wasserstein, Cohen says) is grappling with a well meaning but ultimately nerdy boyfriend, Marty, and her over-involved, overbearing parents. In the course of the journey, both women have to redefine—or perhaps define for the first time—their goals and values.

"I see Harriet as Yelena and Janie as Sonya in Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya,' " says Cohen. "Like Yelena, Harriet is a beautiful woman who knows what she wants. Janie, not unlike Sonya, is lovely inside, but not beautiful, not self-confident. In both plays, the way society views the women determines the way they function and succeed or don't succeed."

So asserts Cohen, a 40-something Baltimore native who is talking with us on the phone, and is best known for his updated Chekhovian plays, most pointedly his "Seagull," which he set in the present-day Hamptons.

"For me, Chekhov is the reference point," Cohen continues. "My thesis is that Chekhov wrote about what audiences knew in the late 19th century. For the first time, audiences saw people who were familiar to them on stage—third rate novelists, failed actors.

"Similarly, when I do Chekhov, I adapt the play to an American setting so that American audiences have the same experiences that the Russians had a century ago." Cohen is so gung-ho on the subject of topicality, he has added a glossary of terms to the "Isn't It Romantic?" program to explain '70s allusions—e.g., Tab, and Jean Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower—for those in the audience who were, perhaps, not yet born. "It's a little tongue-in-cheek," he emphasizes.

Cohen comes through, by turns, as both intense and laid-back, sometimes, oddly enough, both qualities emerging simultaneously.

His pleasure in doing "Isn't It Romantic?" notwithstanding, he is keenly aware of the challenges—not the least, the two women themselves who, to some, may suggest self-indulgent whiners at best. After all, it's not as though they don't have a choice. Indeed, they have many choices.

And therein lies the potential pathos, suggests Cohen. "This play shows us that the choices we make affect our whole lives. If either of those two characters had done one thing differently, everything would have turned out differently."

And not unexpectedly, Cohen finds the two women appealing, especially Janie, who leaves her boyfriend, not without second thoughts, but with the conviction that she still has her friend Harriet. She believes the two of them will be liberated, high-powered career women, unencumbered by marriage, happy and single.

"And just when she dumps Marty, she finds out that Harriet is getting married. And it suddenly hits her. 'I made a decision based upon a concept that no longer exists.' "

A Right and Noble Calling

The son of a McGraw-Hill sales representative, Cohen's early goal was to be a professional tennis player, he says, adding that within short order, his interest in batting the ball back and forth was jettisoned by his desire to act.

Indeed, he went on to earn both his Bachelors and Masters degrees in theatre at New York University, where he studied with Stella Adler. He describes the curriculum as, "one of those hooky-dooky theatre-without-walls programs." Still, studying with Adler was worthwhile, he says. "She made us feel that being a theatre artist was a right and noble calling."

Following a few directing gigs, Cohen took a five-year lease on a building on E. 4th St., owned by a Catholic Church, where he created the Rapp Art Center (now the Connelly Theatre). A controversy erupted in 1990 when he produced "The Cardinal Detoxes" by Thomas Disch. The church, which owned the building, was furious and tried to stop the production. "I hired [the late] Bill Kunstler to defend my first amendment rights."

Cohen concedes the play was a provocative—perhaps an aggressive—choice, but even in retrospect, he feels justified on the grounds that "They [the church] wanted us out of there, anyway. They were about to go back on their word…and I was young and radical. We won in court, but we lost the lease." He laughs. "Look, I'm not into church-bashing!"

Five years later, by the time Cohen forged the Worth Street Theatre Company, he had worked as a teacher at Cal Arts (an institute based in Valencia, Cal.) and as creative vice president for Epic, a movie company that produced "Carlito's Way," starring Al Pacino.

Los Angeles turned out to be a disappointing experience and was a contributing factor in Cohen's return to the East Coast. He recalls that his now controversial production of "The Seagull" (set in the Hamptons) was first mounted in L.A. and well received. Still, it failed to be made into a movie, although there was serious talk of it.

Nevertheless, "The Seagull" was one of his career high points, he maintains; and so was his "Uncle Vanya," called "Uncle Jack," set in West Virginia.

At the moment, however, Cohen's thoughts are most focused on Wasserstein's "Isn't It Romantic?" and his hope that audiences share his conviction that "Wendy is arguably the best woman playwright of her generation."

More to the point, he'd like them to walk out of the theatre feeling as if "They've seen a play that they had no idea would move them the way it did. I want them to feel a little stunned and shaken. I think a younger audience will love it."

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